The reality facing war correspondents

1Dean Steve Coll held a panel discussion yesterday at the J-School on what it means to be a journalist in a world where we are becoming targets. This came in the aftermath of the gruesome murders of Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff by ISIS. The panel members comprised correspondents who regularly cover, or have previously covered, conflict zones stretching from Bosnia to Mali to Iraq and Syria. They were David Rohde from Reuters; Rohde was captured by the Taliban in 2008 and, after seven months in captivity, he found a way to escape. Rukmini Callimachi, from the New York Times, covers Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa. Nicole Tung, a freelance war photographer, covers the Middle East; she was a friend of Jim Foley and was the first to know when he went missing. Lastly, there was Phil Balboni, the CEO of GlobalPost and Foley’s former boss.

There was an alarming statistic that was shared at the start of the discussion, which was bound to raise questions about when did journalists, traditionally considered the neutral party in any war-torn area, become the target? In the last two years, 144 journalists were killed and over 400 imprisoned in the same time period. Of them, about a third were freelancers.

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The number of freelancers in the industry have grown over the years, because of a number of reasons: availability of new technology to report, package, and file stories in real time, budget cuts leading to lean, understaffed international bureaus, and the decrease in the number of full-time war correspondents. Freelancers, as the panelists all agreed, lack the training, expertise, and experience that staffers in news organizations have. They lack the backing of their employers to get them out should things go awry; most staff journalists in conflict zones have security around them to get them to safety.

Nicole Tung, the youngest on the panel, said when she first made her trip to Syria, she was entirely unprepared. Her advice to aspiring war correspondents in our batch was to first have insurance in anticipation of things taking a turn for the worst; next, to have appropriate equipment like satellite phones, flak jackets, first aid kits, and sufficient money to make quick exits if need be; and lastly to have proper training and experience. For women, the dangers of covering a warzone  is magnified. Both Callimachi and Tung briefly hinted at the subject of women correspondents often being at risk of being sexually assaulted and killed in conflict zones, particularly in Syria and Iraq where belligerent forces see them appropriate for only sex. Callimachi also added that it was important to write a letter to your loved ones, expressly stating what you want done in the event you were kidnapped; that included stating whether you wanted ransom to be paid and assigning responsibility to a friend or a loved one to deal with the government in facilitating rescue efforts.

Everyone in the panel agreed that for youngsters still trying to find a footing in this industry, going to unstable places like Syria and Iraq would be tremendously unwise. There are many conflict zones around the world where journalists are not seen as a commodity and their kidnappings as a viable business model by belligerent forces. In fact, other journalists also share the same sentiments elsewhere – Colin Freeman wrote recently wrote a piece for The Telegraph outlining what lessons freelancers can learn from the recent tragedies of Foley and Sotloff.

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The panel discussion also touched upon the growing disparity in how countries handle kidnappings. While the United States and the UK absolutely refuse to negotiate with kidnappers, many countries in Europe continue to pay ransoms to rescue their citizens. This makes kidnappings a business model for terror groups to fund themselves. Until a unified response tactics to ransom kidnappings is reached and adhered to, the panel reckoned US and UK journalists would always be targeted more – because, as one of them though I cannot remember who, terrorists continue to be under the impression that both countries negotiate and pay ransoms.

Being a war correspondent has been misrepresented and has become a glamorized role – in part due to Hollywood and its almost romantic interpretation of what it’s like to throw oneself into a war torn area in search of stories. The continuous struggle to stay alive and out of harm’s way while chasing stories, knowing as a freelancer the journalist is expendable to the organization that’s paying to buy his/her work, makes this a much undervalued profession in the world. A large percentage of news organizations now rely on freelance war reporters in Syria and Iraq for stories while their own staff report from relatively safe and well guarded environments. One of the panelists said, and this resonates well with me, freelancers always stay the longest. Even when they are being shot at, being kidnapped, and killed, they stay and that is what makes this job so undervalued.

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